The absence of the Big West Conference’s player of the year devastated Cal Poly’s hopes to advance in the NCAA women’s volleyball tournament Friday night.
With Torrey Van Winden unavailable, the back-to-back conference champion and No. 14-ranked Mustangs sustained a 25-19, 25-18, 23-25, 25-22 loss to unranked San Diego in the first round at USC’s Galen Center.
Van Winden, ranked third nationally with 5.07 kills per set, was injured when a volleyball hit her in the face during Tuesday’s practice. The junior was placed in concussion protocol Friday and was not medically cleared to play.
Van Winden’s teammates found out hours before their match against USD (17-12).
“We had to figure out and find ways to be successful without her on the court,” Cal Poly head coach Sam Crosson said. “Certainly as a staff, you’re a little unsure of how the group is going to react.”
Outside hitter Adlee Van Winden described the reaction to the news about her younger sister.
“When we found that out, it obviously was devastating, heartbreaking,” the senior said. “She puts up numbers that are crazy for our conference and for our team. Not only that, but she holds our team very accountable. She’s the person on the court who keeps people in line, and she knows the game very well.”
Yet the Mustangs transformed shock into determination.
“We just had to trust and believe in the process and the hard work that people put in.,” Adlee Van Winden said. “Our only mentality that we allowed ourselves to have was to believe that we could win this game without her.”
Middle blocker Meredith Phillips expressed that confidence more emphatically.
”There was never a second where we had doubt that we didn’t think we could do it without her,” Phillips said. “We knew we had other people who would step up and come to play, and they did.”
Maia Dvoracek started in the younger Van Winden’s place and finished with career highs of eight kills and four digs. The elder Van Winden contributed 19 kills, one less than her season best. But Cal Poly (25-3) compiled a .157 hitting percentage — the season’s second lowest.
Meanwhile, the Toreros pounded kills at a .463 rate.
”They are a high-octane offensive team,” Crosson said. “They’ve got a lot of good attackers at the antennas, and when that team passes the ball and has multiple options, they stress you in a lot of ways.”
Yet improved defense kept Cal Poly competitive. The Mustangs compiled 25 of their 44 digs and 10 of their 12 block assists in the final two sets, while recording both of their solo blocks.
“I thought our defense in the third and fourth sets was tremendously better,” Crosson said. “We started blocking more balls. We started to get more transition swings. That just gave the team more confidence and belief that we’re going to do this.”
Better blocking enabled the Mustangs to turn a 6-4 deficit into a 10-6 lead in the fourth set. Dvoracek and Madilyn Mercer each had two block assists during that spree, with Mercer adding a kill off Avalon DeNecochea’s quick set.
But USD scored five of its next eight points off hitting errors in retaking a 14-12 lead. Lauren Fuller accounted for the other three points on kills, part of her match-high 22.
Cal Poly used two of the Toreros’ hitting errors to force a 14-14 tie, then USD used an 8-3 surge to build a 22-17 advantage. The Mustangs have now lost five successive matches to the Toreros.
“The biggest key for me was seeing the response of this group after the second set,” Crosson said. “It could have been very easy for them to not galvanize themselves as a group and to start thinking about the individual. But that’s not the culture we have in this program.
”To find ourselves in a potential fifth set within 12 hours of learning that speaks volumes to this group.”
The Mustangs’ season comes to an end one step shy of last year when they were knocked out in the second round.